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Is My Dog Frustrated? (and Am I Causing it?)

Eileen Koval, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

I meant to write about this a while ago when I had several new cases within a week involving various types of frustration behavior, and have been sidetracked. We all experience frustration in our lives when we cannot get something we want such as a material thing, or a desired outcome. This can cause us to act out emotionally, and dogs are no exception to this. People are frequently surprised to realize the underlying emotion behind their dog's unwanted behavior is frustration. Dogs may be even more susceptible to frustration because they lack freedom and autonomy. Different dogs have varying thresholds for how much frustration they can handle before it boils over into aggression and other unwanted behaviors. This can vary individually, as well as by breed. There are things we can do to change a dog's emotional and behavioral response to the stimuli and circumstances that cause frustration. In some situations, WE may be the ones causing the frustration.

Causes of Frustration Behaviors

Most people are familiar with barrier frustration behaviors, such as dogs fighting through a fence, although they may not recognize the escalating emotions are caused by the stress of the barrier. A leash can be another sort of barrier preventing a dog from getting to things he wishes to engage. Dogs who frequently go to the dog park or doggie daycare may want to engage every dog they see. At day care and dogs parks, they get to approach every dog they see, so they may have difficulty coping with the different rules while on leash. They may bark and lunge on leash when they cannot get to those other dogs. A crate can be a cause of frustration if the dog would rather be engaging with people/dogs/toys/activities that are going on outside the crate. This can be witnessed if a dog is put in a crate whenever company arrives to the home, or at dog sports classes when a dog has to wait in a crate for his turn to come up. The window or front door of the home can also be barriers causing frustration behaviors if there is something outside at that immediate moment that your dog is blocked from engaging.

Information gap: another type of frustration is when a dog lacks the information to do what he is being asked to do. This is also a barrier -- it is a barrier to him doing his job and/or receiving his reward! Those who do any sort of training with their dogs may be most familiar with this one. We may ask a dog to perform a certain behavior, but he instead offers different behaviors instead of the one we want. You may proceed to ask him to perform the behavior again, and he does not give the correct behavior. Eventually, he may start barking, jumping, or nipping at you because he doesn't know what you want. Alternatively, he may walk away and shut down, refusing to work with you any longer. On the agility course, we sometimes see dogs barking or nipping at owners when they fail to give clear information to the dog about what obstacle comes next. The dog want to do what we want, but lacks clear information to do so. Alternatively, some dogs move more slowly, sniff, mark with urine, and appear to lose interest.

What is Redirected Aggression?

Frustration aggression can turn into redirected aggression very quickly as arousal levels rise for dogs who do not possess the skills to cope with not getting what they want at that moment. Arousal/stress levels will be more intense the longer the frustration goes on and the more often these episodes take place.

Redirected aggression is when someone cannot get at the thing that is bothering them, so they take it out on a different more readily available target. Think about coming home after a horrible day at work with a boss who drove you crazy. You may come home and end up yelling at your spouse. What did your spouse have to do with it? Nothing. They just happened to be there when you were in a moment of high arousal and intense stress which you could not handle.

A dog who is fence fighting may turn and bite the owner or another dog in their household if they approach the frustrated dog too closely during the fence fighting episode. A cattle dog with herding instincts may bite someone or rip up the blinds when unable to get to the group of kids on bicycles that he sees out the window.

Practice Makes Perfect!

Frustration Intensifies With Prolonged Episodes and Practice

Over time, these can become learned responses, where every time he encounters the trigger/stimulus, he reacts in a specific way. The dog is using the same neural pathways in the brain over and over every time he encounters the trigger in the particular circumstances where frustration occurs. This is where practice makes perfect. A behavior can become "wired" in the brain, more solidified and intensified the more often it is practiced. A dog who can go from crying and whining on leash when he sees another dog to where he exhibits aggressive growling and lunging behaviors if he continues to practice this behavior. Dogs learn this emotional response by being exposed to the stressful situation repeatedly, and the behavior of showing aggression eventually becomes an automatic behavioral response when he sees any dog on leash. This is how a dog can go from being friendly to reactive, taking owners by surprise.

Frustration does not just go away Over time, the dog who is frustrated and now reactive on leash may learn to associate this feeling to dogs off leash, as well. A dog who fence fights a yellow lab every day may eventually start to show aggressive behaviors towards dogs he sees outside the home that fit that visual profile. Owners may end up yelling at the dog in their own frustration during these episodes. This only makes the dog more frustrated and does not help them to cope with the situation. It may stress the dog more, so the behavior becomes worse. Conversely, other owners may try to quiet the dog by allowing them to approach the stimulus or feed treats to their dog during the barking. These attempts to quell could send a message that barking = rewards. (Note: treats are not bad, but must be done specifically in the context of an operant or counter-conditioning program. Make sure you know which behaviors you are rewarding.)

Dogs can develop an aversion to training with an owner because they associate training with frustration or, in effect, punishment. This is an example of a learned response. The owner picks up a bag of highly desirable treats and goes into their training area, only to have the dog begin sniffing the ground, avoiding the owner, showing disinterest. Alternatively, other dogs begin to show more aggressive learned responses such as barking, jumping, and other high arousal behaviors because they are anticipating the frustrating event. Both types of responses are brought about by a history of owner-induced frustration during training, but one is from a dog more prone to flight (avoidance) responses, while the other is a dog who exhibits fight responses. The trigger for the frustration behavior in these cases is the owner, but only in the presence of treats and a training scenario, since that is when the lack of information occurs. This is why it is important to explore the antecedents (what happened before the behavior occurred), the environment, what behavior did the dog exhibit, how did the owner respond to the behavior, other consequences for the behavior, etc.

What Can We Do About It?

Frustration is stress. The frustration behavior that you witness is a way that your dog is attempting to cope with stress that may be overwhelming in intensity for him. We can find ways to reduce the stress by changing the environment (not always possible), practice impulse control/coping develop coping skills, build focus on the handler, and teach a new behavior they can offer instead of the unwanted behavior. You and your behavior consultant may do all or just some of the above, depending on the specifics of your dogs' frustration behavior.

In these scenarios where the owners induced frustration during training, the owners can avoid inducing frustration by learning to communicate more clearly. They can learn to set up scenarios where the dog can succeed most of the time (this is known as errorless training...this is what I use), which can speed up the learning process, develop a highly engaged canine partner, and go a long way toward reducing frustration. Also, rewarding the dog every time they do what is asked builds trust and reduced frustration. This includes when we ask them to do something that we did not intend, such as when we offer an incorrect hand or body signal, or utter the wrong command. Be a partner that your dog can rely on. They will lose interest if you do not hold up your end of the bargain.

Other environmental changes can be simple things like a solid fence covering, a dark cloth crate cover, or reducing access to windows so the dog cannot visually see the trigger.

For some dogs, the answer may be learning impulse control and coping skills to handle not getting what they want. They have to learn that there is value in remaining calm, the most value is in focusing on the owner, and that there is value in not getting to the thing they want. For some dogs, all the value lies in getting to that dog 20 feet away from them at the park while they are walking with their owner on leash, but see no value in giving that up to focus on the owner. All the value lies in doing agility on the course with the owner, but they see no value in being calm while waiting in their crate.